Wednesday, January 28, 2009

I don't want to come down too hard on John Updike. Not only haven't I read the Rabbit Angstrom novels, but the sheer weight of his achievement – novels, collections of poetry, short stories, and essays, plays – defies appraisal. At the university library, his collected oeuvre, like the thick, mucus-green, neglected hardcovers of the collected Meredith and Balzac, intimidates the hell out of me. Here is a vocation, a job beyond well done. Art as edifice.

Marble is cold. I've read The Centaur and The Witches of Eastwick and a dozen short stories (the perennials "A&P" and "The Happiest I've Been" haven't lost their ability to provoke discussion). As an Old Master before he was forty, Updike projected a certain complacency. Beyond the exploration of an anxiety that even when it dealt with sex rarely burned with the existential fervor that his contemporaries Bellow and Roth would have taken for granted, his novels were content to elide pain and mystery. His productivity masked a reluctance to probe beneath the surface of a situation; he substituted depth for range. The style for which he was (in)famous caulked over these aesthetic shortcomings, and was often itself a shortcoming. Michiko Kakutani cites a characterization of Jewish protagonist Bech as "recherche but amiable" as an example of Updike's sumptuousness; to me, it's a case of ornamentation that verges on decadence, disintegrating upon closer scrutiny. The same goes for a description of a film projector (a "chuckling whirr." Really -- "chuckling"?). Updike is often compared to John Cheever, whose own prose shone with a similar high gloss that defined The New Yorker voice, for better or worse. In the compendium of excerpts and appraisals up on the site, this bit from Cheever's journal, in which Cheever confesses how much the younger man and his writing mean to him, illuminates the differences between the two writers:
As for John, he was a man I so esteemed as a colleague and so loved as a friend that his loss is indescribable. He was a prince. I think it not difficult to kiss him goodbye—I can think of no other way of parting from him, although he would, in my case, have been embarrassed. I think him peerless as a writer of his generation; and his gift of communicating—to millions of strangers—his most exalted and desperate emotions was, in his case, fortified by immense and uncommon intelligence and erudition. John, quite alone in the field of aesthetics, remained shrewd. Mercifully, there is no consolation in thinking that his extraordinary brilliance presaged a cruel, untimely, and unnatural death. His common sense would have dismissed that as repulsive and vulgar. One misses his brightness—one misses it painfully—but one remembers that his life was dedicated to the description of enduring—and I definitely do not mean immortal—to enduring strains of sensuality and spiritual revelations.

So the call about John’s untimely death was a fraud. I have decided, says my daughter, that it was an overambitious stringer, who saw the name on a police blotter and tried to cash in. This is a wish founded on the desirable simplicity of being charitable; one of her best characteristics. I am distempered, forlorn, and idle.
This is generous, sweet, and precise. Cheever never wrote a novel as architecturally sound as Updike, but he rarely lapsed into glibness or mere word-watercolors.

It's hard to call his literary journalism as anything but masterful -- of a kind. Odd Jobs and Hugging the Shore flaunt an impressively catholic range; he's a pedantic but observant critic of the visual arts, and did his part to support European up and comers like Kundera and Handke. I give him more credit than Gore Vidal for awakening my interest in the perennially underrated William Dean Howells. But the limits of his expansiveness showed in 1999, when reviewing Alan Holinghurst's wan The Spell, and I was struck by how such a tireless manufacturer of material could have no clue about homosexuality, or why there are some novelists for whom homosexuality was text not subtext.

So I'll miss the old man. When Gore Vee-dal smirks his way to death, the last generation for whom a devotion to literature remained the only constant will have passed into history books. Updike showed how a facility for fleet-fingered filigrees could lead to financial renumeration, maybe for the last time. The world sighs, mildly, leaving no chuckle to whirr.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Having just ended Something, I'm glad there are certain things in the world I can count on, like a cheeky Pet Shop Boys interview on their forthcoming album:
Q: Do the lyrics tell a story?

A: Not really, they're more of a 'Love Comes Quickly' / 'Before' / 'You've Got To Start Somewhere'-style instance of Neil doing his benefit-of-experience 'thing'. So it's written from the outside going "hello, I am Neil Tennant, this is what I have discovered in my life and perhaps you would do well to listen to my top tips on love etc if you are interested in a kiss and a cuddle".

Q: Do you think it will sell well outside their core fanbase?

A: Combined with the Brits performance it could do. It's the most Radio One-friendly track they've done in a while.

Q: Does it feature an orchestra?

A: No.

Q: Can you dance to it?

A: Not really.

Q: Is it camp?

A: No.

Q: Does it have pathos, drama or euphoria?

A: No.

Q: Does it contain witty observational lyrics?

A: Yes.

Q: Does it have an underlying sadness?

A: No, unless you count the implicit sadness that people are materialistic in their view of love etc.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Looking more swollen and deformed than he did in Sin City, Mickey Rourke reminds us that he's got a hardscrabble poetry in him -- only don't remind him, please. In The Wrestler, he and Marisa Tomei have a handful of scenes in which he displays the quiet insinuating flirtatiousness that, in Diner so many years ago, convinced the victim of a cruel bet that he'd stuck his pecker through a box of popcorn because she made him "kinda hot." The Wrestler is not a movie I spent much time thinking about afterward, which is why some of the hosannas hurled its way have mystified me. But it knows exactly what it's doing. The Nowheresville landscape is rendered with a precision that reminded of William Carlos Williams' lines in "Spring and All" about a New Jersey "waste of broad, muddy fields brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen." Darren Aronofksy's fascination with the kind of transfiguring humiliation you only see in the movies somnambulizes the audience to a conclusion that only those who avoided Marvel Comics as kids won't see coming; he isn't resourceful enough as a director to transfigure scenes between Rourke and Evan Rachel Wood that are a total wheeze (Wood is indifferently, cruelly directed).

Whether Rourke can act in less formulaic pictures than The Wrestler is a moot point; he's so not the man (let alone the actor) he seemed capable of being that flaunting Aronofksy's stigmatas may be all we can expect. Maybe Jon Favreau, Bryan Singer, or some other sensitive comic book movie auteur can give him another break.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Depressed poodle bites Jacques Chirac

I don't normally post news of the weird type shit, but I couldn't resist this:
The couple's white Maltese poodle, called Sumo, has a history of frenzied fits and became increasingly prone to making "vicious, unprovoked attacks" despite receiving treatment with anti-depressants, Chirac's wife Bernadette said.

"If you only knew! I had a dramatic day yesterday," she told VSD magazine. "Sumo bit my husband!"

Mrs. Chirac, 74, did not reveal where the former president was bitten, but said, "the dog went for him for no apparent reason."

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

I had a few comments published in The Village Voice's Pazz and Jop poll. Here are the rejected ones.

My favorite album this year was Erykah Badu's New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), not least because in a confusing time, I expect artists to be confused themselves. Heady, gnomic, often inscrutable, NAPO is an album on which its creators are figuring out what they want to say in the act of recording. In 1997 Badu, with her turban and high, pinched Lady Day mannerisms, was lauded for how different she sounded from Blige and Whitney, honored as much for not being Blige and Whitney. Although I still find her voice affectless, I see the beginnings of an aesthetic strategy: the voice's detachment is Badu's way of mitigating the thud of her more incoherent moments. But incoherence and affectlessness merge into something beautiful and strange in "Me," which could have been retitled "Dreams From My Afro-American Studies Class."


Listening to Randy Newman's Harps and Angels a few weeks ago, it occurred to me: he recorded this album too late to include a song about Vampire Weekend, sung from the point of view of an outraged I Love Music poster.


The distortion of the human voice was this year's hot trend, especially in R&B and hip-hop, in which Auto-Tune became a kind of sacrificial cross that affirmed its users' tortured humanity. Kanye West sounded like a Robocop. Lil Wayne sounded like a sex dwarf. The-Dream sounded like Prince imitating Prince. Then there was Portishead's Beth Gibbons, who completed her transformation from wretch to wraith, and it took only 14 years. Since Portishead's appeal slipped right past me back when they were supposedly giving Massive Attack and Tricky a jog through the trip-hop haze, I had nothing invested in waiting for Third. But Gibbons' arid yelp rubs up against the piston beats, yards and yards of ugly guitar, and even uglier synth lines in a much more eloquent manner than the sounds she pries from her larynx, which I'm assuming are lyrics. Lots of reviews have noted how Third could have been released in 1999 as an answer record to Mezzanine or Angels With Dirty Faces. A subtle indictment maybe: rootless melancholia can seem like nostalgia if you don't concentrate hard enough. But the sequence from "We Carry On" through "Machine Gun" is rootless melancholia of the first degree; the music swells, contracts, swells again, and bursts. From Belgian techno beehive synths to squelched harmonies, it's the history of rave culture and trip-hop in 13 minutes.


Of course prettiness can signify by itself; but marveling at the details gets boring sooner or later. Fleet Foxes reminded audiences that Crosby, Stills, and Nash had really pretty harmonies. Shrewd, too, that their creators sculpted those voices to enshrine the band's complacency and self-regard. Fleet Foxes haven't kicked around as long as CSN, but they veer perilously close to the Land of Goop. Despite a couple of obvious exceptions these tracks are the kind of voice-plus for which T-Pain is still mistakenly

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

I've never seen such a crowd in the student union building today as I did an hour before Barack Obama's inauguration. The euphoria is over; let the work begin.

Glenn Greenwald:
I can understand someone being moved by the events of today, even though pageantry, ceremony and ritual of this sort doesn't move me personally (if anything, political spectacles of this magnitude, that are engineered with such massive and adept stagecraft, make me slightly uncomfortable, but I can definitely see how other reasonable people would find it uplifting).

Whatever one's views are on what came before the Bush/Cheney darkness and whatever one's guesses are about what is likely to come now, it's simply the case that seeing that duo and all of their rotted appendages disappear is a positive event. Add to that the fact that the election of an African-American as President is something many (most) people thought they'd never see, and add on to that the throngs of millions of very engaged citizens who are genuinely convinced (rightly or wrongly) that something momentous and important is now going to happen, and it's understandable that even people generally inured to these sorts of highly engineered events are swept up with the sentiments of the day.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Economist gets the award for the best obituary on the long national nightmare of the last eight years. George W. Bush's lasting achievement? Appointing "an army of over-promoted, ideologically vetted homunculi."

Friday, January 16, 2009

My review of Jon Meacham's tenderfooted Andrew Jackson biography is up.
Mike's essay on Animal Collective for Village Voice Media is likely the most tantalizing thing I'm likely to read about a band I don't like, and, really, I disagree with most of his conclusions; he should have been more careful about statements like "They've exposed the young white world to dub, South American, and African styles." Subsequent conversations revealed that he, to his embarrassment, meant the Pitchfork generation(the Internet version has since purged this sentence). But the thought stands.

As for yours truly, the obscurity of the lyrics doesn't jive with the moves towards greater openness and focus in the music and singing. Something is being signified, but what? The words half-articulate a joy the band hasn't deeply considered; marriage is a state, the band argues, that reduces late twentysomethings into apostles blessed with Pentecostal fire, without the attendant clarity of expression. It's like holy love turned its supplicants into graceless fools. If lyrics like "I'm really lost in your curls" sung by a twentysomething male is your idea of an endearment, have at it. Plenty of eighteen-year-olds are happily married.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

I'm a sucker for a a man or woman strumming electric rhythm, espousing a certain kind of twinkle-eyed caddishness. Favorites: Ray Parker, Jr.'s "The Other Woman," the Go-Betweens' "Man O'Sand to Girl O'Sea," Lou Reed's "Don't Talk To Me About Work," Liz Phair's "6'1," Lloyd Cole's "She's a Girl and I'm a Man," Luna's "Rhythm King," the Silver Jews' "Random Rules." Reed of course invented this shit in the Velvet Underground, and the ethos flowered in mid nineties indie rock (the only strand of mid nineties indie rock I can listen to now).

The last seven or eight years have been rather slack, though; hip-hop, I suspect, has contributed most of the players. Any candidates? Franz Ferdinand comes to mind.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Ricardo Montalban - RIP.

Pauline Kael's remark -- that Montalban lived a "lucrative horror story" -- is churlish next to a clip like this:

Obama will end don't-ask-don't tell policy

According to Robert Gibbs. We'll see.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Listening to the President's last press conference yesterday morning, I told a press conference that, when asked for the umpteenth time, to name any mistakes his adminstration had named, Bush's replies sounded like Karl Rove. Instead of focusing on policy, he mentioned problems that might plague an art director.

This letter on Andrew Sullivan's blog is OTM:
When discussing his "mistakes," Bush focused on whether to land his plane in Baton Rouge and the press coverage of Abu Ghraib. So he understood his role not as a decision maker and allocator of resources, but as a television personality--a media interface. That really has been his role, I think. It suggests at minimum a superficiality about his job, a failure to connect to the deeper importance of policy

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Two of the year's best films are about the Three Gorges Dam, which cuts across the Yangtze in central China and is the world's largest hydroelectric project. I'll discuss Jia Zhang-ke's marvelous Still Life when I get around to compiling my ten favorite films (South Florida's malnourished movie market means I'm catching up with new releases now), Up The Yangtze deserves mention now. This documentary by Canadian writer-director Yung Chung follows two teenagers who get work on a party boat that caters to Western tourists. The girl, who has an expression like she's on the verge of breaking out into hysterical tears, washes dishes; the supercilious boy, the product of a more economically secure (such as it is in the post-Mao China) family, learns English and collects tips (in American dollars) as a host. Their bosses offer firm advice: "Don't be modest or too humble -- they [tourists] think it's fake. Avoid Northern Island. Don't talk about monarchies or any relevant political issues. Avoid Northern island. Said tourists amble around the deck snapping photos of one another in in 19th century dowager costumes. "I think China's even more modern than I expected to see, but the poverty in the rural life is especially visible," says one bright-eyed American with a Southern accent. Meanwhile the girl's parents admit to the culture of crypto-capitalist slavery of modern China. "It's because your father and I don't have [your] skills that we have to exploit you," her mother explains. The system exploits every citizen: the Three Gorges Dam project demanded that villagers move whole towns to make way for the diverted river. Walt Disney might have approved.

Yung's images are concrete, unforced; they extend sympathy while avoiding the didactic trap of the documentarian. Like the river that gives the great Jean Renoir film its title, the Yangtze sets the tone: it offers no judgment, indifferent to the detritus washing up on shore.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Holy Christ

This new Animal Collective...
Prince puts the (platonic, bien sur) moves on Ann Powers. As usual, he whets the appetite with promises of releasing three albums at once and causes eyes to roll at the thought of what a Prince perfume might smell like (the kind Madonna sprayed all over Like A Prayer?). As usual, he sounds like a loon and an asshole when pressed to talk about politics ("`I have friends that are gay, and we study the Bible together,' he said").

Inspired by this thread, I've been relistening to lots of post-1992 Prince. The Comeback Trilogy of Musicology, 3121, and Planet Earth all sport new additions to his permanent canon ("Chelsea Rodgers," "Cinnamon Girl"), but he should fire his engineer: they sound like he recorded them in a box of cereal. Emancipation, however, remains an enduring delight. "The Holy River" should have been the Top Five comeback that "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" was. The ungodly cover of "One of Us" is evidence that Prince isn't one of us, and "My Computer" and the title track are at once deliriously weird and accessible -- and I haven't even mentioned the midtempo R&B stuff like "Soul Sanctuary" that sinks its claws into me every time I forget to remember them. My favorite has always been "Let's Have a Baby," which, despite its author's preference for his work on The Time's "777-9311," features his most inventive bass playing (he told Anthony DeCurtis at the time that Joni Mitchell's use of space and silence served as a continuing inspiration). It's the song every R&B writer of midtempo stuff has tried to write, with intentions loud and clear.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Writing an inaugural address is not as taxing as reading older ones, as Barack Obama has no doubt learned. Jill Lepore's trudge through two hundred-twenty some-odd years of pedantry, solecisms, and catalogues worthy of the Book of Numbers is worth a read (it's also wittier than most of the addresses). She's too hard on John Adams', thanks to an infamous sentence that I'm tempted to call proto-Proustian; and too soft on James Garfield's, whose intelligence (our most erudite president after Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt) unfortunately fails to relieve his own self-written speech of ponderosities as overtaxed as his beard.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Anthony is, er, right. The fitfully funny Forgetting Sarah Marshall was a warning sign, now confirmed with this latest: the Apatow gang is running out of material. Now I understand what a few of the Knocked Up-Superbad naysayers meant when they picked on Apatow for his obsession with homoerotic undercurrents in male friendships; it's not ease, it's facility, and creepy. The buttfuck joke is less funny than a similar one in The Naked Gun.
At Slate's annual Movie Club, you have to weigh through several pages of nonsense (one of its perpetrators being, alas, the estimable Lisa Schwartzbaum) to get to Stephanie Zacharek's sober thoughts. Otherwise we get lines like "after an endless summer of limp, one-laugh-per-half-hour dude comedies (Pineapple Express, Stepbrothers), how big a relief was it to finally crack up at the pumped-up, joke-crammed Tropic Thunder?" and kudos for the "intelligence and technical dexterity of Frost/Nixon and Doubt."

RIP Ron Asheton

Sad. Never the biggest Stooges fan (nothing personal; just didn't listen all that much), but I was curious enough about last year's reunion record to download it without listening. Thoughts?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Like A Few Good Men, also directed by a former TV actor turned reliable Hollywood hired hand, Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon builds to a phony climax in which The Hero manipulates The Villain into making a Startling Revelation that the audience knows will come simply by glancing at their cellphones and realizing that only fifteen minutes keep them from sunlight and freedom. Maybe this worked onstage. Peter Morgan, who adapted his own play for the screen, isn't content to trust our delight in the thousands of Nixonian bon mots uttered in the course of the real-life Frost/Nixon interviews: he constructs more than an hour of "back story" designed to show David Frost as the insouciant playboy who Learns To Be A Man (I'm sure the only reason Tom Cruise wasn't hired for the part is because Michael Sheen is better box office these days). Here's another movie assembled around a personage whose evil is so taken for granted that the filmmakers can ignore, relieved, all history, context, and consequences. Frost was hardly the vacuous entertainer of Morgan and Howard's feeble imaginations; even taking into account the usual retrospective whitewashing, Frost's own Behind The Scenes of the Nixon Interviews proved how much he'd researched his subject, and how fully he understood the implications of Nixon's Constitutional crimes; however much he may have wanted an apology on national television from the Dickster for sensationalist reasons, it's clear that Frost and his team also didn't look for a "Did you order the Code Red?" moment. As with Doubt, I left Frost/Nixon wondering why the hell this was filmed in the first place, especially when, thanks to YouTube, we can watch the actual debate, and all of Nixon's one of a kind mix of lawyerly evasion, genuine intelligence and probity, self-pity, and ponderousness.

As for Frank Langella, he proves -- as Philip Baker Hall and Anthony Hopkins did -- that it's difficult for a professional actor to play a bad actor, which is what Nixon was (one of the few things Frost/Nixon gets right is how superbly Nixon understood the nature of TV lighting and presentation -- after the 1960 presidential election he knew more than most). It's a confident performance by a pro, but it leaves no aftertaste, nothing that lingers. Another disadvantage: Langella is a more imposing physical presence than Nixon ever was; Langella's playing Saruman, while the real Richard Milhouse Nixon was more like Wormtongue. Kevin Bacon proves once again how well he plays crypto-fascists.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year

An OK year -- we can only hope for better in 2009.

The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be---
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?
-- Robert Frost, "Neither Out Far Nor In Deep"